2505 Kelsie


Nihilism can make you happier!

The urge to graft meaning onto every part of waking consciousness isn't surprising, but does this habit actually make anyone feel better?

Historically, nihilism hasn't had the sunniest reputation. At its simplest, it's a declaration that life is meaningless. That the systems we subscribe to, to give us a sense of purpose (religion, politics etc), are constructs. Notions of morality, decency and goodness are not inherent to the fabric of existence, but concepts we allow to dictate our collective reality. Sure, stating that everything you love, value or seek comfort in is meaningless can feel like a bitter declaration. But it doesn't have to be.

After spending two years engrossed in nihilism, I've become particularly sensitive to our relationship to "meaning" as an opaque but all-consuming idea. The desire to live a meaningful life isn't a bad thing. Foundational theories of community, ethics, logic and equality were born from humanity's investigation of it. My issue is with how meaning has been commodified.

There's a game I like to play: spot the meaningless meaning. It refers to the increasing desire for every brand, product or service to present itself as somehow meaningful. Sometimes it's a podcast advertisement that talks about community, memory, nostalgia and values for two minutes before revealing it's talking about mortgage insurance. Or a pharmacy brand mascara that positions itself as a radical weapon of self-expression. At first this obsession with meaning is little more than annoying. But dig a little deeper, and you'll realise how noxious it can be.

A sense of purpose is a prized possession, but also one that takes a lot of time and effort. If a brand, product or service is able to offer a shadow of that satisfaction for a fraction of the toil, it's (on the surface) a good deal. At first, it feels great to pretend every mundane task is a noble pursuit. But looking at our lives – and all the ways these artificial, yet heroic, messages of meaning are pushed on us – does this habit actually make anyone feel better?

The reality is, all this meaning doesn't improve our understanding of the world; it distorts it. Before the market for it exploded, most people located meaning in a few areas: a handful of relationships, religion, a single creative passion.

Now meaning has moved from a reward to a metric. One to be endlessly assigned to areas of our lives that previously we would have barely given a second thought. When we're not immediately able to locate meaning in our actions, we're left feeling like anxious, empty failures. Jobs, relationships, consumer products, and interactions that fail to meet these dizzying expectations aren't simply seen as acceptably regular, they're marked as wastes of time. Meaningless failures.

That feeling might be particularly familiar right now. As our lives and the areas in which we once sought meaning are so massively disrupted, many of us probably feel the weight of seemingly meaningless days, weeks and even years.

That's where nihilism comes in.

When I consider nihilism and life's meaninglessness, I begin by remembering that in the scope of all human history, I really matter very little. My issues and concerns are pointless. My successes and failures will all eventually be forgotten. As will the achievements and stumbles of everyone around me. That perspective makes me, and my problems, feel very small.

That might seem harsh at first. But personally nihilism hasn't led to existential angst and psychological annihilation. Ironically, in a reality constructed to make everything feel overly significant, that actually leaves us anxious and miserable, insignificance offers a strange sense of peace. While I may feel dwarfed by the scope of endless and apathetic time, the smallest elements of my life begin to expand. If nothing matters long term, my focus shifts to this moment. I understand that the present, however mundane, is as fleeting, temporal, fragile, and ultimately forgettable as the greatest events in human history.

Approached this way, nihilism makes me wonder about what I do and don't pay attention to. Is what another person thinks of me as meaningful (or meaningless) as a brush of jasmine tumbling over a neighbour's fence? Not really. So why am I consumed by one while ignoring the other? The only difference is one leaves me feeling stressed, the other delivers a fleeting but pure moment of pleasure.

Beyond offering a mindful break, this reduction of self leads to other considerations. If I don't matter, and am therefore not the centre of everything and the priority, then what is?

For each person, the answer is different. Personally, like many people, accepting the futility of my small life led me to deepen my commitment to environmentalism. Understanding that the only constant (at least until it's absorbed by the sun in a few billion years) is the Earth itself, its protection becomes more important than any singular interests of mine.

I encourage you to try this exercise: If you accept that you don't matter, that your name, ego, reputation, family, friends and loves will soon be gone, how does the way you understand your own time, money and energy change? Maybe the process reframes your attention to things you hope will last for a little longer than yourself. Or perhaps it draws you back to that present moment: the small joys you can access today, the people you love, their right to feel safe, respected and well.

Nihilism is sometimes described as a destructive force. But I like to think of it as a tool: one that helps me dismantle and challenge the way the world has been presented. With its help I can pause for a moment to appreciate my reality for what it truly is: random, absurd, sometimes painful, often lovely, completely my own, and totally meaningless. In that way, nihilism makes me feel, above all, free.


From: Nihilism can make you happier

by Wendy Syfret